The Kabbalah of Community

Since closing one’s eyes when the sermon is a time-honored tradition, I invite all of you to close your eyes but I caution against sleep, not for my sake but yours. According to the Jerusalem Talmud, “If one sleeps at the year’s beginning, good fortune likewise sleeps.” So, briefly close your eyes to awaken imagination, luxuriate in this precious time where we have nothing to plan or worry about, not even food, and listen to a community that once upon a time lived mystery, miracle, and magic.
It is early morning, you’re dressed in white, and you begin to journey up a trail on a green mountain. You look below to a valley sheltered by a pillow of wispy cloud. The light and crisp air is easy to breathe as you climb higher and higher. The cloud lifts to show you beautiful lake. Imagine it any way you like, clear, deep, and cool. Suddenly you see a shaft of brilliant sunlight that points to a cluster of adobe houses that jut forth from the mountain itself.
You find yourself striding eagerly to the Jewish Shangri-la known as Safed in northern Israel. It is an unearthly village that could be in the Himalayas, northern New Mexico, a perfect landscape for radical amazement. It is a fall Shabbat morning 500 years ago.
The entire village is dressed in white, with vine leaves in their hair, dancing towards a sky blue synagogue. Cats sun themselves in the arched doorways undisturbed. The mystics claim them to be gilgulim, incarnations of the righteous departed ancestors.
You enter the small simple synagogue and take a seat on one of the round benches that encircle the bima in the center of the room. Listen to the hum of melody and chant as they sway with a little smile on their lips as they pray.
Although you are surrounded by sages, saints, and activists, there is no aristocracy here. You are greeted warmly by people who all go to the well to draw water and carry the pitcher on their shoulders. They go to the marketplace to buy bread, oil, and vegetables. All the work of the house is done by the highest and the lowest. The richest share with the poorest and everyone works at a trade by day while living as mystics by night. You sing Ma Tovu and the room fills with light. You enter a world that you once knew before you were born.
When you are ready to leave Safed and return to Santa Fe, you may open your eyes as if after a beautiful dream that you wish to carry into your waking day. It is this consciousness that we need to see ourselves as more than individuals sitting next to one another, but a community connected by an invisible web of history and promise.
You cannot be a Jew alone, and we can do together what we cannot do alone. Throughout our history we have created communities to embody an ideal of lovingkindness, and on Yom Kippur we are lifted by prayers that remind us that God gave birth to each of us and that we are sisters and brothers.
We come together to improve our spiritual lives, that is, to move from our individual existential loneliness and despair. Much of the time we are blocked emotionally. Our feelings, which are the gateway to spirit, and are another way to understand angels, help us to feel lighter and more alive.
On Yom Kippur, we fast and transcend our mundane physical concerns. A day like this gives us a chance to let our worrying minds rest, to experience a gentle opening of the heart, and to sit quietly without all the distractions that keep us from our essence.
When we created HaMakom, we didn’t intend for it to be such an exclusive society of single-minded seekers as Safed We wanted a community, however, that would seriously attempt to be one of lovingkindness guided by Jewish principles. That meant that every encounter, whether at services, at a board or committee meeting, to be conscious of our behavior with one another.
I came into the rabbinate late in my life, after I’d found myself disappointed with congregations that forgot its mandate to be a house of God in pursuit of raising money and increasing membership. It’s so tempting to measure success materially. I wondered if it were possible to create a group that could do business differently.
Happily, Santa Fe was a special place with special people. I found others who wanted to attempt to be an experiment, a laboratory for a new kind of Jewish community for those who were alienated from traditional synagogues, who wanted a laid back Judaism that was meaningful.
Many of us were very spiritual but couldn’t find a path within Judaism. A foreign language with complicated practices that made us feel ignorant and alienated. Communities formed around nuclear families put many of us outside the pale. Yet at mid-age, as we bore the death of a parent, serious illness, and the inevitable losses of youth and time, we found ourselves wondering if there was a way to claim the tradition into which we were born.
While we are not necessarily as devoted nor as passionate as the Kabbalists of Safed, we at HaMakom have found ourselves in a community that has commitment to respond to one another in joy and sorrow. We live in a world where so many of us are indifferent to one another. Thank you notes grow rarer, visits to the sick and bereaved are memory; maybe we think to send an e-mail of condolence. In a small community such as ours, we not only support one another, we are accountable to one another to be God’s face for one another.
The purpose of all this, however, is not to provide a journey of self discovery, a place to assuage loneliness, or to make more people fall in love with Judaism. Our highest intention is to become better people through the technology of understanding what it means to be a Jew, and to be a Jew is to look beyond one’s self, one’s family and friends, and beyond one’s spiritual community.
Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of our calendar, doesn’t celebrate the birthday of the Jewish people. It celebrates the birthday of the world. Our narrative doesn’t begin with the birth of Abraham but with the birth of the first human being, called Adam. This name comes from adamah, which means earth. My spiritual father, Rabbi Harold Schulweis, spoke of a new vision of Judaism this Rosh Hashanah. ÒTo be a Jew is to think big,”he told his congregation. To be a Jew is to think globally. To be a Jew is to act globally. To be a Jew is to love God, who is global.” We have created HaMakom to be a presence that will pay attention not just to the struggle of Jews but of all people. Rabbi Schulweis is proposing a Jewish World Watch, a new group that will monitor reports of atrocities in the world and to speak out against injustice. He is inviting other congregations to join him and I encourage our community, which has already begun to speak this message in its alliance with St. Bede’s, to follow his lead.
Here are what other Jewish communities are doing. The American Jewish World Service has raised $250,000 for humanitarian efforts in the Darfur province of western Sudan. Rabbi Lee Bycel is observing the Yom Kippur fast in Chad, where 200,000 Sudanese have fled. “On this fast day of ours,” he has said, I will fast with people who do not fast by choice, who may never break the fast. He hopes to raise $75,000 for food and medical supplies through Mazon, an organization that raises money in the Jewish community to feed the world’s poor.
This is our season when we reflect on our lives over the last year and to ask forgiveness of others and of God to seal our lives in the Book of Life. Our lives hang in balance by how we value other lives. 10,000 displaced people are dying from violence and disease each month in Darfur. 1.2 million people are homeless as they attempt to escape the horror of Sudan.
After the Holocaust, we said, “Never again!” We asked where were the churches, the nations, and the spiritual leaders when we cried in our agony. Now we must ask, “Where are we today?” What will we tell our children and grandchildren about our response to the genocide of Rwanda and the slaughter in Sudan?
This is an election year that has been called by both parties as a watershed. Be sure to vote, and more than that, help bring others to the polls to exercise one of the greatest privileges America has given us, the right to express our opinion of what we believe our country stands for. May we make the communities to which we belong bring heaven to earth by partnering with God in compassion.
On this holiest of Sabbaths, I beg each of you to look at your own lives as a gift not just to you but to the world. Reach into your hearts to save just one life. Our tradition tells us that to save a live is to save a world. Let none of us turn our eyes away from the importance of this hour, and let us listen to the words of Albert Einstein:
“Strange is our situation here on earth. Each one of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet seeming to divine a purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know. That we are here for the sake of others….Above all, for those upon whose smile and well being our own happiness depends, and also for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by the bond of sympathy. Many times a day I realize how much my own inner and outer life is built upon the labors of my fellow citizens, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received and am still receiving.”
May we do no less. May it be Your will.